I make no secret of the fact I had a whopping great breakdown in 2010. At the time I was working for a financial services company, in a large office. I am sure that I only survived because my manager noticed that I was far from ok, and did his best to help me. Eventually, it was him who told me: Please go to the doctor and get signed off; don’t come back until you are better.
I’m fairly sure that breakdown would have happened, regardless of what did or didn’t happen around me. By that point I was at the centre of my own perfect storm, with both my home life and work life collapsing around me.
Those members of my family and friends with whom I had not directly fallen out, had fallen out with each other leaving me as piggy in the middle. Normally if I was having a bad time in my personal life, I would just throw myself into my work – but at work, our company had just been bought out (again) and the entire office had been put under consultation pending redundancies. So nobody was doing much work, and nobody much cared or even noticed if I didn’t do mine.
Although my decline was an inevitable build-up of many different things, there is an argument to be made that the situation at work really did not help. I had been working for that company for several years, and at that time was managing a small team. Often while I was struggling to “look normal” at my desk my cover would be blown by someone asking me about a report or a procedure or some such – because we were all trying to at least keep up the pretence of working 35 hours per week.
I found it hard to communicate to anyone what was going on with me; I felt like I was going mad and although my manager and a couple of close friends knew all the ins and outs of my dramas, most had no idea. The day I was sent home a colleague asked why I was leaving mid-morning and I responded I’ve gone crazy so Dave sent me home. I didn’t really know what else to say – and neither did my poor colleague after that!
Talking about mental health at work
The thing is that being signed off work is sort of a defining moment of this story, it is possibly only that because it’s one of very few details I can remember. What I do recall is that my problems began many months before that – and carried on long after I’d taken voluntary redundancy from my job and taken 3 months of garden leave. But I never really elaborated any more than I’ve gone a bit mad.
For those months beforehand, when I was feeling progressively worse, I didn’t know how to tell people what was wrong. I often felt like it would be so much easier if I had a broken arm or some other physical problem that I could point to and say, See? I’m not well! If I’d had an operation or something I could tell people, Sorry, I can’t answer your questions; I’m still recovering from that thing. I didn’t have the words to explain that I couldn’t answer people’s questions because I couldn’t even decide what sandwich to buy for lunch.
Grey areas in mental health
At the beginning, when I was just feeling rubbish, it wasn’t even a case of needing time off work; I just needed to plod along. There are so many shades of grey when it comes to mental health; it’s not as simple as being either perfectly fine or being sectioned. Apparently in any given week one in six people have experienced a common mental health problem – but I don’t think sickness rates in work are quite at one in six just yet. So most people are just struggling on – medicated or unmedicated.
What if there was a way to let your work colleagues know you’re not feeling so great? Not quite at the level of really shouldn’t be here but also not quite feeling brilliant. Many of us are quite capable of carrying on with our day-to-day tasks, but we just could do with people treating us with a little more care.
These days I’m self employed, but most of my work at the moment is with a marketing agency who are currently working towards B Corp certification. This means they’re re-evaluating their current procedures and processes, seeing where there is room to improve, how they can make more of a positive impact on the world.
As a part of this, whilst we were drafting updates to the employee handbook, we talked about ideas for communicating to each other when we’re feeling less than fantastic. We’re a remote team so it can be difficult to do the sort of “water cooler chit-chat” you find in most offices. We do use Slack though, to communicate on all sorts of work related issues as well as sharing interesting articles and jokes. We came up with the idea of using Slack to quickly and wordlessly share how we’re feeling each day – with one of four emojis in our status.
A practise of self inquiry
We all agreed to update our emoji every morning, and again at lunch time – and that this would be a chance for each of us to really stop and think about how we’re feeling.
How often do you actually stop and really ask yourself, How do I feel? So often we’re too busy running around, trying to get things done and deal with social media notifications and housework and the work that pays the bills and childcare and any number of other things – that we don’t actually stop and think about how we are. Most of us have a stock response when we’re asked how we are. It’s usually Yes, good thanks; you? – as we rush on past, not waiting to hear the other person’s equally predictable response.
If we’re not in touch with how we’re feeling, then feelings like overwhelm and anxiety can creep up on us – we almost don’t see them coming, until we look back with the advantage of hindsight. Getting into the habit of identifying how you feel, and then communicating that to others, can only be a good thing.
Let’s talk about how we’re feeling.
We’ve come a long way since 2010 when I slid into the bog of eternal stench and almost drowned. The company I worked for now has a team of “mental health first aiders” who are available to help people who are struggling and need some emotional support. People talk about mental health and perhaps more importantly, about mental illness these days. There’s less whispering, and perhaps less pressure to make up a physical reason why you can’t go to work today.
Interestingly, many members of the team I work with now are in their early twenties – and they don’t seem half as reticant to be honest about how they’re feeling. Perhaps times really are changing.
There is still a really long way to go though.
Let’s start by being honest about how we feel – at least with ourselves.
How are you feeling today?
If you are struggling, check out BetterHelp for online support.